Thom Yorke is obsessed with sleep, rest, REM and dreams: the hope, outward process and inward psychology of it all. Perhaps that ongoing concern is a Jungian reaction to the constant churn of low level anxiety that’s made up the Radiohead man’s existence since 1993’s “Pablo Honey,” or the deeper panic lived out through solo efforts such as the mood wringing “The Eraser” and the electrifyingly mopey “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.”
In the context of his third solo album, “Anima” — in a continued menacing fashion, an outgrowth of his song-cycle soundtrack to Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 film “Suspiria” — Yorke has wrested control of his restlessness and made his messed-up dream state both richly provocative and proactive while maintaining its desolation. With that, he and producer-collaborator Nigel Godrich have finally wrenched the indirect (yet, still radical) direction of Yorke’s solo oeuvre from that of Radiohead’s … for now.
Like a meeting of Arianna Huffington’s “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time” and Roni Size’s “New Forms,” Yorke and Godrich have given restfulness a good hard kick in the frontal lobe.
That means that even “Anima’s” robo-rhythms — its globby tech-bass pulses and scampering, sequenced drums — have a deliciously fleshy humanity.
On hand to literally propel its drum sounds and give the album greater human touch is Radiohead’s Phil Selway on “Impossible Knots,” and Joey Waronker (from Yorke’s other band, Atoms for Peace) on “The Axe.” You may not actively gather that their drums are live, especially considering Selway’s fast-paced funky freneticism on “Knots.” But, like adding a dash of salt to water, you just know the flavor is finer.
Outside of its padded pulses, spare synthetic washes and an occasional guitar squiggle, everything else is just Yorke — clarion-clear Yorke, layers of Yorke, FX-heavy versions of Yorke, Yorkes upon Yorke. Unlike previous solo albums and Atom for Peace records, Yorke finally doesn’t sound as if he’s avoiding the out-front-alone part of the solo contract.
A large part of this lived-in magnanimity and new regard for being center stage may also stem from the fact that Yorke and Godrich spent the better part of last winter touring around with a “live mix” that featured bits of “Anima” along with past solo tracks.
It could be that Yorke is no longer shy of being a singer in the spotlight. While the slow, epic “Dawn Chorus” (more on this long anticipated track in a minute) finds him moving with daring clarity through a spacey arrangement and its oozing melodicism, “Last I Heard (…He Was Circling the Drain)” is downright Bowie/“Blackstar” in its baritone’s vibrato sway when met by supple jungle rhythms. Maintaining that Bowie-like theatricality, Yorke drives through the clutter and Sugarhill-rap handclaps of “Traffic” as if he were using a falsetto yell to get through his morning drive.
While the prolix dream-rant and echo-heavy voices of “Not the News” and “Last I Heard (He Was Circling the Drain)” focus on sleep’s more ominous constructs (“I woke up with a feeling that I just could not take”), unsettled fugue states are not the only thing on Yorke’s mind, conscious or subconscious.
Shimmering strings, galloping beats and a steady, Satie-like piano set the stage for “Twist,” with its waking, muzzy headed thoughts (“Twisted thorns that grow inside/Shingle washing my old bones”) and its spooky finale (“A boy on a bike who is running away/An empty car in the woods, the motor left running… And this face it isn’t me”). Although it was initially penned for a Rag & Bone runway show in 2012, unsteadying lyrics such as these — to say nothing of its clomping groove and groggy melody — would have slipped nicely into his “Suspiria” soundtrack. The fretless bass-driven “I Am a Very Rude Person” with its veddy British vocals and “I’m going to watch your body die” messaging is more settling.
One could rely on the fact that Yorke has long been a king of limber, cut-and-paste imagery and that he’s gluing ideas, sights and thoughts onto the collage-like vision board in his head. Or perhaps, uncomfortably, his long term anxiety is adding up to little true rest with broken dreams and snapped synaptic gaps as a (lyrical) result.
Also, making albums ripe with electronica has never made Yorke, the lyricist, comfortable with technology, or at one with its extended reach into the socio-culture. “Goddamned machinery, why don’t you speak to me? / One day I am gonna take an axe to you,” he whinnies on a prolonged “The Axe.” “Give me a goddamned good reason not to jack it all in.”
Lastly, there is “Dawn Chorus.” Forever a part of the unreleased Radiohead song mill, Yorke’s most elegant, simple song aptly rears its gorgeous head on “Anima” the album and also as the endpiece of its accompanying short film, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and currently appearing on Netflix.
“Take a little piece, and break it off “ he sings, before re-imagining the ghost of a relationship he’s lost, or discarded. “The wind picked up / Shook up the soot / From the chimney pot Into spiral patterns / Of you my love.” As the melody subtly grows in intensity, his voices inch along, quietly, before settling and silencing.
Thomas’ filmic version of “Anima” is a wee more avant-garde than the album itself, a lovely, Stanley Donen-meets-Fellini mini-musical (and not just the Donen of “Singin’ in the Rain,” but “Two for the Road,” too) dedicated to everything from Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd’s lonely-hearted silent film heroes to Damien Jalet’s deeply physical choreography for Guadagnino/Yorke’s “Suspiria.” In Thomas’ mind, ending as he does by moving from a deep romantic embrace to Yorke alone on a subway train with the sound of “Dawn Chorus” below, the viewer is meant to focus on the loss that Yorke only alludes to in hints, whispers and shadows. Where Yorke’s album is spare and silvery, Anderon’s short film is rich, warm and wonky. Both projects on their own are united by their dislocation.
Together, they paint two different but co-joined, surreal and jerky versions of the dream. Maybe they both need a long nap. They’ve earned it.